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Obama visits Mandela's former jail before South Africa speech

On Sunday, the First Family visited Robben Island, which is where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of the nearly 30 years he was in prison. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his family were visiting a former prison island off South Africa on Sunday in tribute to ailing anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

The visit to Robben Island – the penal colony where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail – was taking place hours ahead of a speech at the University of Cape Town.

Obama has already seen Mandela's cell once before, during a visit he made while still a U.S. senator in 2006.

The President and First Lady Michelle Obama made the short but spectacular flight to Robben Island from nearby Cape Town at 1:46 p.m. local time (7:46 a.m. ET).

Obama met privately Saturday with relatives of Mandela, who has been in a serious condition in a hospital in Pretoria, near Johannesburg, for three weeks.

The White House announced earlier that Obama, "out of deference to Nelson Mandela's peace and comfort and the family's wishes," would not visit Mandela, who led South Africa out of racial segregation and became its first black president.

Obama also spoke by telephone with Graça Machel, Mandela's wife, while she remained at the 94-year-old former statesman's beside.

"I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world -- including me," Obama said in a statement.

"I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time," Obama said, referring to Mandela by his honorary clan name.

Obama’s Sunday speech echoes the “Day of Affirmation” address given at the same location in 1966 by Robert Kennedy, who compared struggle to overcome apartheid with the U.S. civil rights movement.

NBC News' Daniel Arkin contributed to this report.

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